He is corny and Twitter is hip.
He is a center in a small-ball, position-free NBA.
He is an annoyance to some teammates, a pleasure to others.
Whoever you are this morning, you surely have an opinion about Dwight Howard. Few NBA players remain as polarizing -- even today, as the 32-year-old Howard takes his roadshow to its latest stop, Washington, with a 1+1 deal with the Wizards that’s slightly less than the ones LeBron James and Kevin Durant have been signing the past few years.
Howard’s in D.C. for the mid-level, $5.3 million, having been jettisoned by Charlotte in a deal with Brooklyn, which had no intention of keeping him and only made the deal to get Timofey Mozgov’s contract off its books. (The Nets acquired Howard on July 6 … and waived him on July 7, making him a free agent.) Thus, technically, Howard is on his fourth team in little more than a year, with the Atlanta Hawks having started the ball rolling by dealing him to the Hornets in June of 2017.
The Wizards aren’t expecting miracles. They’d just like a steady, two-way center who can improve both upon the output of their former incumbent, Marcin Gortat -- traded to the Clippers in late June for Austin Rivers -- and in his relationship with John Wall, with whom Gortat got crossways last season.
As Wall is the bell cow around these parts, you must be right with him to move forward -- and Wall apparently wanted Howard, DMing him after the buyout with Brooklyn was complete to recruit him to the Wizards -- just as Howard was thinking about potentially seeing if there was a fit for him with the Golden State Warriors.
“Once John hit me up,” Howard said last week, “it was like, nah, this is the spot. Not only did it feel right, but everything, from the point guard situation to the shooting guard, to the city. All of that. I’m very intrigued by Washington, D.C., itself … on the court, man, it just makes total sense. On the court in Golden State would have looked great. And we could have won. But the impact of winning in Golden State and D.C. is totally different.”
Being right with people is something Howard seems to have struggled with in each of his last few stops. Famously, Kobe Bryant didn’t click with Howard in Los Angeles. In Houston, Howard and James Harden never meshed, two non-verbal Alphas who were barely speaking to one another by the end of Howard’s stay there.
After Howard signed with Atlanta in 2016, he and then-teammate Dennis Schroder argued on the floor. After Howard was traded to Charlotte, Schroder said Howard only played hard against his former teams.
And my man and NBA TV colleague, Brendan Haywood, distilled discord between Howard and his teammates in Charlotte last season -- according to sources Haywood spoke with after Howard was shipped to Brooklyn. (Haywood has since spoken with Howard, telling the D.C.-based sports website The Sports Capitol that he thinks things will be different with the Wizards “because Dwight’s going to want it to be different.”
So how did we get here?
Howard blames a narrative, based on his jokey -- and, some say, hokey -- personality, one which was originally playful and fun-loving (remember when we all clamored for his Stan Van Gundy impression? That was before their … uh … parting, which was highlighted by the most awkward shootaround I’ve ever been at personally. That’s me holding the TNT mic … we did the Magic’s game that night). He believes the public’s tiring of him is in direct correlation to his teams’ won-loss records the last few years.
“It’s the nature of the NBA,” Howard said. “It’s a business. From a fan’s perspective, they wouldn’t understand what goes on in the locker room or the business side of it. They only know what’s talked (about) to them or what they see on TV. So that’s something that we can’t really control, it’s that type of narrative. The one thing I can do … is (give) them another view of who I am by being out in the community, by doing things that they can say ‘hey, despite what they say about him in the news or on TV, I met this man. I spent time with him. He did this for our city. He did this for our community.’ And that will go further than any lie that’s always being said.
“I’m from the country, and they always say, ‘a lie don’t care who tell it.’ And a lie will get around a lot faster than the truth, ‘cause a lot of people can’t really handle the truth, and a lot of people hate what they don’t understand.”
But … that doesn’t explain all the antipathy, either -- at least, not completely. Since leaving Orlando, Howard’s teams have made the playoffs five out of six seasons, including the Western Conference finals in 2015. Last season’s 36-46 mark in Charlotte marked the first time Howard hadn’t been in the postseason since 2007, his third season in the league.
... When you lose, I think that’s where -- I don’t know if it’s finger pointing -- when you lose, there’s disappointment. There’s frustration. And, again, because he’s an elite player and he’s been an elite player, he takes more than his share of the criticism."
And Howard’s terrestrial numbers have been consistent for almost a decade. He’s never again reached his averages his last season in Orlando, when he put up 20.6 points per game and led the NBA with 14.5 rebounds per game. But despite the caravan of different teams, Howard’s numbers have been rock-solid since 2012: he’s averaged15.9 points and 12.1 rebounds, shooting 51.9 percent from the floor. He tied for eighth in the league last season at 1.6 blocks per game. He’s also come back from the career-threatening back surgery he underwent in 2012 -- the last three seasons, he’s started 226 of a possible 246 games, or 91.9 percent.
So … why?
“That’s the thing I don’t understand,” Howard said. “Before, it was ‘numbers are everything.’ So when the numbers are there it’s ‘well, they’re not winning.’ Which I understand. It’s all about winning. But that’s why all that stuff is behind me. I’m healthy now. And I think this is the perfect situation to where, when we do win, then all of it’s going to make sense … I know what I can provide for a team on and off the court, and I’m looking forward to doing that here in D.C.”
It’s not like everyone hates playing with or coaching Howard. Hawks forward Kent Bazemore told ESPN in June that Howard’s gotten a “bad rap” and that he was a “great teammate” in Atlanta.
And his last coach, Steve Clifford, said by phone Sunday that the perception many currently have of Howard is an unfair one.
“I think that really, ever since he was young, which is the case with guys who are elite level players, they all take more responsibility when things don’t go well,” said Clifford, now the Magic’s coach after being fired by Charlotte in April. “A lot of times, because of his very nature, I think people have a misconception about how serious he is about being the best player he can be and playing his role as well as he can.”
Clifford, who was also on Van Gundy’s staff in Orlando as an assistant while Howard was there, insists things weren’t as bad with Howard in Charlotte as has been alleged.
“When you win, everything’s fine,” he said. “And then when you lose, I think that’s where -- I don’t know if it’s finger pointing -- when you lose, there’s disappointment. There’s frustration. And, again, because he’s an elite player and he’s been an elite player, he takes more than his share of the criticism. We had no major issues. I would challenge anybody who watched the games to see conflict on the floor between him and the other guys.”
Howard was hardly the first star to force a trade out of town, as he infamously did in Orlando before being sent to the Lakers in 2012. That took place as part of an equally infamous four-team, 12-player trade that, remarkably, didn’t help any of the four teams involved -- at least in the short term. They will do a “30 For 30” about this trade. Do you remember?
• Howard went to the Lakers, along with Earl Clark and Chris Duhon, with Orlando also sending Jason Richardson to the Philadelphia 76ers.
• The Lakers traded Andrew Bynum to the 76ers, and sent Christian Eyenga, Josh McRoberts and a 2017 second-round pick (which became Wesley Iwundu) to the Magic.
• Philadelphia traded Andre Iguodala to Denver, and sent Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and a 2017 first-round pick to Orlando. (The Magic subsequently sent that 2017 first back to Philly, which ultimately traded it to Sacramento, who took De’Aaron Fox with the fifth pick overall in ’17.)
• Denver traded Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, a 2013 second-round pick (which became Romero Osby) and a 2014 first-rounder to Orlando -- which took Dario Saric in a pre-arranged trade with Philly and sent his right to the Sixers for the rights to Elfrid Payton.
Yet Howard didn’t finish his career with the Lakers (this didn’t age well), nor the Rockets, nor the Hawks, nor the Hornets -- which Twitter gleefully pointed out was his stated objective at each introductory news conference in those respective towns. Only Saric and Vucevic became meaningful contributors with the team that initially took them. Iguodala played well for the Nuggets in 2012-13 (13 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.4 apg), but landed in Golden State via a three-team, sign-and-trade deal in the summer of 2013. Since then, Iguodala has won a Finals MVP and three rings with the Warriors.
Meanwhile, Howard is working out again this summer with trainers Justin Zormelo and Ed Downs, who he’s worked with since 2016. If there’s an ounce of fat within a city block of Howard, it better find him and apologize. He is as cut up as ever.
“When I first got with Ed, on the training side, my goal was to drop weight about 20 pounds, so I did that,” Howard said. “To lean out, so I’d be able to run, jump higher, be more explosive. You could tell from last season that I was able to do a lot of that stuff. And then on the basketball side, Justin, we started working together. I saw a big difference from the time. My game has been a lot different.”
He’s added martial arts training and boxing the last couple of years as well.
“The boxing was more so to lean me out,” he says, “and the martial arts was more to help me with quick twitch moves and stuff like that. But also being able to really help with hip movement.”
He’s had a Hall of Fame career. It’s very important to him that he finishes this, no matter how many years he has left, to finish on a high note.”
Howard faced up with the ball with some success in Orlando, but with Zormelo, he thinks he’s gotten better in isolations over the last couple of years.
“Instead of just trying to back people down, or make a quick faceup move and spin, I was doing different types of moves,” Howard says. “But also doing pick and pop. Handling the ball, bringing the ball up the court. Just different things that most people haven’t seen from me. Which, in order for me to keep playing in this league at a high level, I had to bring those things out. Last year was moreso kind of like my rookie year, I would say, with the style of play. And I thought it worked out very well.”
Yet the Hornets moved on, quickly, leaving Howard to try and prove himself yet again with yet another team.
Howard should be an upgrade over Gortat for the Wizards, but how big an upgrade he’ll be is not certain. Gortat may be slowing down some at 34, but he still did a lot of good things on the floor and was a vital part of Washington’s recent uptick to a playoff regular.
He remained incredibly durable and started all 82 games for the third time in his last four seasons. In his five seasons in Washington, Gortat missed a total of eight games, showing up in 98 percent of the Wizards’ regular season games. He was still elite last season in screen assists, finishing fourth in the league at 4.5 per game, per NBA.com/Stats (though Howard was closely behind him, ranking sixth with 4.2 per game). Gortat’s 21 charges drawn ranked second among NBA centers last season, trailing only DeMarcus Cousins.
But Gortat was getting attacked defensively with more frequency and effectiveness by opponents last season, getting Gortat to switch onto their guards and leaving him isolated. And in the Wizards’ first-round playoff series loss to the Toronto Raptors, Jonas Valanciunas was effective in the paint against him. The Wizards, like everyone else in the league, opted for more small-ball lineups as the season went on. Gortat countered, with some justification, that Wall was leaving him on an island defensively by not fighting harder through screens and staying in front of his man.
Offensively, the Wizards need Howard to help them resurrect their screen-and-roll game, which Wall and Gortat ran to great effect for years, but which fell off noticeably last season. With Wall out half of the season with injuries, Washington fell from 11th in the league in 2016-17 in screen-and-roll possessions with the ball handler finishing the possession -- a total of 1,612, or 17.9 percent of all the Wizards’ possessions that season -- to 25th last season, at 1,298, or 14.6 percent (via NBA.com/Stats)
Howard was better in Charlotte with Kemba Walker than Gortat was in Washington with Wall as a roll man last season, but not good enough to help Clifford keep his job.
“Being honest, his dynamic in the pick-and-roll with Kemba was fine, but not what we hoped it could have become,” Clifford said. “That is, to me, the challenge. It’s the roll game, getting a chemistry with not just John Wall, but the other guys, too. It was the same with us -- not just Kemba, but Nic Batum and Jeremy Lamb. I don’t know why (it wasn’t better).
“Dwight’s a good screener. He has the ability to sprint to the rim for lobs. He has the ability to catch that one dribble pocket pass and get it to the corner, which he does. It wasn’t that he and Kemba didn’t play well together. It wasn’t bad, nor was it was great.”
But even though Howard has diversified his game offensively, can a non-floor spreading big even stay on the floor these days?
“Definitely, the game has changed,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “But a lot of times with that change, it still remains the same. You need a big. And when you have a talented big, you use him. A lot of teams, there’s a little bit of growth going on with some of the younger bigs in the league … And (Howard) brings a skill set and a talent that, there’s only a few guys in the league that can do. The challenge is going to be, how are you going to guard smaller guys?”
Howard guarded the paint fine for Charlotte, but the Hornets struggled to defend 3-pointers, finishing 27th in the league (37.5 percent allowed). By contrast, the Wizards were pretty good defending 3-pointers, tying with Indiana for fifth-best in the league at 34.9 percent allowed. If Washington can marry its perimeter D with improved paint defense, it could have something.
But let’s take this for what it is: a modern NBA marriage of convenience, between a playoff team in the East that can at least dream about breaking through now that LeBron James is with the Lakers, and a big man trying to remain relevant when men much smaller than he nonetheless play his position. One that still has the taste of losing The Finals on his home floor in 2009 in his mouth, and wants desperately to unfurl his Superman cape again.
It’s why he brought friends and family with him to D.C., including his father, and why he couldn’t help himself during his introductory presser, talking about how he “learned Magic for eight years, traveled to LaLa Land, learned how to work with Rockets, learned how to fly with some Hawks. Got stung by the Hornets. Through all of that, it’s taught me how to be a Wizard.”
It was funny, in the moment. Most everyone in the room laughed. Most everyone who read it on Twitter opened both barrels on him. It’s going to be that way for a while. The fall will give Dwight Howard another chance to show he still can help a team win without driving it crazy.
He needs Wall as much as Wall needs him.
“He’s had a Hall of Fame career,” Clifford said of his former center. “It’s very important to him that he finishes this, no matter how many years he has left, to finish on a high note.”
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